Martin Mölder: Politicians get set

Martin Mölder.
Martin Mölder. Source: Maili Vilson/

With Riigikogu elections drawing near, political scientist Martin Mölder analyzes politicians' starting positions in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

It has been a good time for those interested in politics since the last Riigikogu elections. Never before have we had so much ready information on how voters feel about various political topics.

Party ratings make up an important part of that. Norstat and the Institute for Societal Studies have offered us a weekly poll, while Turu-uuringute AS and EMOR have added their monthly ratings. There has never been such a thorough overview of parties' positions in between elections in Estonia.

However, that which will count come March 2023 will be determined over the coming months. Right now, it is important to remember how the positions of various political forces have changed on a general level. It also offers a glimpse into what we can expect over the coming campaign season.

The Reform Party's lead in the poll is greater today than their elections victory in 2019. That said, much of it is down to luck. Reform managed to stay relevant in the opposition courtesy of certain voter groups' reluctance to see the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) in office. This support quickly collapsed when Reform returned to the government (in the Reform-Center coalition – ed.). Their current lead in the polls comes in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war and can disappear as suddenly as it was created.

Meanwhile, EKRE and Center have traded places. After taking the lead for a brief spell last autumn, EKRE have now firmly positioned themselves as the second most popular party. At the same time, Center's popularity has been shrinking, including among those considered the party's core voters, since the first Kallas administration took office. There are no signs to suggest support for EKRE might fall or that of Center start to grow again.

Looking at the remaining three competitive parties, Eesti 200 putting itself on the right side of the election threshold has been the greatest change on the backdrop of both the Social Democrats (SDE) and Isamaa having lost a little ground since last elections.

Eesti 200's rise comes as a demonstration of how emotions and impulse can affect ratings. Also, while both SDE and Isamaa came quite close to falling below the election threshold (of 5 percent – ed.), both seem to have found a secure footing again.

There will be several axes of competition between parties for the March elections. The race will be close in the right-wing, social-liberal sector, with the Reform Party, Eesti 200 and [political newcomers] Parempoolsed (Right-wingers) fighting for similar voters. SDE fits in on social issues somewhere between the three.

The fate of Eesti 200 and Parempoolsed, who have practically no support to speak of yet, will depend on the success of the squirrels (Reform Party mascot – ed.) Should the prime minister's party fare well, the struggle will be cutthroat for the others. Should the government make major blunders, it is likely that some current Reform supporters might be persuaded to back Eesti 200 or Parempoolsed.

Whereas Isamaa and SDE might turn out to be Reform's saviors in this. Viewers did not see Reform rise to domestic challenges last winter that caused the party's rating to drop to 20 percent. Should the squirrels' current coalition partners manage to keep domestic issues in check this winter, the Reform Party will likely escape the worst. That said, a part of voters is always drawn to that which is new. Another outcome of this political triangle – Reform, Eesti 200 and Parempoolsed – might be that competition between the latter two will keep both out of the parliament in 2023.

The other relevant competition axis is Center and EKRE. Both parties represent voters in society who feel left behind or deprived. The parties will need to prove to voters which is the stronger antidote to social-liberal forces. It is likely that EKRE have a slight edge and a stronger position today.

Support for the party has been climbing for a long time. They have already proved themselves as a force able to clearly articulate social problems in the eyes of many voters. EKRE will also find it easier to highlight problems and solutions in the conditions of the economic crisis and the Russia-Ukraine war, which is something neither its social-liberal competitors nor Center are very good at.

The third and somewhat smaller axis runs through Isamaa and EKRE. Both appeal to social-conservative voters. EKRE rhetoric often gets to a point that is not acceptable for Isamaa politicians and voters. Reversely, Isamaa is not strong or national enough for plenty of EKRE backers.

That said, Isamaa have proven themselves a solid and universally compatible coalition partner for which far more potential coalitions are open compared to EKRE. No one has ruled out working with them. Therefore, Isamaa has greater potential to affect Estonian politics. They simply need to convince their voters that the term "national-conservative" does not only stand for EKRE or EKRE-style politics.

Finally, we should remember a conflict dimension created before the previous elections and that is bound to resurface now. The conflict between EKRE and Reform and the latter's potential allies.

This conflict is more political-technological than ideological and here it is. The largest party in the system managing to rule out its main competitor for every potential participant in the process of forming the next government would effectively give it unlimited power within the system. It would be very difficult to find combinations not dominated by the former. That is why we will probably witness attempts to brand EKRE unfit for cooperation also during this campaign.

The political fall will be thick with tension.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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